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Educational Inequality in the United States

Social Problem Identification

Education is a pathway to opportunity and advancement that allows young people to gain the knowledge, skills, and experiences they need to land suitable employment and have a bright future. Nonetheless, education in the United States is exceedingly unequal. Students from economically challenged households, minority backgrounds, and immigrants averagely demonstrate lesser academic skills, get fewer certificates and degrees, and quit school earlier than their more privileged contemporaries (De Brey et al., 2021). Despite numerous variances in the quality of teaching, financing, class capacity, and curriculum, the prevailing consensus – which is grossly misleading – is that students bear the blame when they do not obtain satisfactory academic results. Therefore, if the United States is ever to overcome educational inequality, the federal government, states, school districts, and other stakeholders must work together to address and resolve these disparities.

Prevalence of the Problem

In contrast to many Asian and European countries, where schools are funded equally and centrally, the richest 10% of U.S. school districts spend about tenfold more than the poorest 10%, with expenditure rates of three to one being common in many states (Black, 2017). The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (n.d.) reports that while 12% of students from low-income backgrounds are held back in ninth grade, less than 3% percent of students from well-to-do backgrounds suffered a similar fate. Additionally, the report finds that students from low-income backgrounds are three times more likely to quit high school before receiving a diploma.

Causes of the Problem

One of the most significant societal and economic challenges in the United States is rising inequality. According to De Brey et al. (2021), since the early 1980s, the aggregate proportion of income gained by the bottom 90% in America has been steadily declining, with the top 1% reaping the majority of the gains. Such trends would be less concerning if the country’s educational system countered the imbalances by helping students level the playing field and climb above their social and economic circumstances. That is, however, often far from the fact. According to Sharp (2016), the educational and academic access gaps among students in the U. S. are also caused by many other factors, including family wealth or income, government legislation, parenting styles, school choice, implicit bias towards students’ ethnicity or race, and school resources. Therefore, to address these disparities, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which outlined viable solutions to the issues that lead to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes.

Description of the Policy Intervention

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the NCLB Act, which was a revision to the 1965 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The NCLB Act was a federal education law reform that requires states to eliminate achievement disparities by providing all students a significant, equal, and fair opportunities to acquire quality education (Husband & Hunt, 2015). The act, which received bipartisan support, recommended that the federal government funds all states to assist them in planning methods for assessing students. With this regard, the ultimate goal of the NCLB Act was to ensure that every child achieves proficiency within a 12-year period, with annual assessments in grades 3 to 8 to track progress. During the evaluation, schools and students had to meet the proficiency plan’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as specified in the act (Husband & Hunt, 2015). The purpose of these federal requirements was to structure classroom instructions and the academic curriculum by linking teachers’ and schools’ progress to achieving a stipulated national level of progress on State assessments.

Strengths of the Policy

The NCLB Act primarily impacted district schools, teachers, curriculum, students from different social classes, and low performing and disabled students. The accountability principles that require schools to perform well in the yearly tests compelled them to record and report improved performance levels. According to the legislation recommendations, states set their unique standards for grade-level achievement and established a scheme to assess the progress to achieve the set standards (Sharp, 2016). The schools were required to record significant improvement to achieve the set standard, and failing meant receiving reduced funds. Schools would, therefore, produce a better result to evade the punishment, which increased the level of accountability. According to the act, each state’s academic status was linked to its students’ performance to maintain liability and determine their performance using standardized tests.

The NCLB legislation impacted the gap among students’ performance according to race and income status. The legislation provided a universal solution to all students and tasked schools and districts to identify students from maligned groups, including students from low-income backgrounds and minority racial groups e.g. African Americans and Latinas, and disabled students (Husband & Hunt, 2015). Additionally, each state was required to recognize its racial groups and account for their performance. This move was critical and presented an opportunity to the groups to equal evaluation on academic performance, which helped bridge education gaps among students. As a result, disabled students and students from low-income and racial minority groups experienced fair and progressive opportunities like well-to-do students and participated in academic studies with lesser challenges.

NCLB regulations also helped most disabled learners by providing incentives and rewards to better-performing schools that dealt with disabled students and those who had performed well in their Annual Yearly Progress tests. As a result, the dropout rate dramatically reduced, with an increase in graduates and a significant transition from high school to college. The legislation helped many students develop the eagerness to work hard, attain the set standards, and increase their proficiency (Sharp, 2016). Additionally, funding of Level 1 schools allowed low achieving students to have time to catch up with others through special programs such as hiring additional tutors. Therefore, this presented an equal opportunity for all students to perform academically despite their achieving levels.

Weaknesses of the Policy

However, NCLB legislation had its setbacks in its implementation and assessing methods. The legislation received criticism from various scholars and researchers on how it implemented academic structures. Analysts established several faults in the educational system that did not give equal opportunities to all students in the United States. For instance, Leyva (2021) states that the legislation had an extremely narrow focus on the curriculum as it paid much attention to mathematics and reading results. This means that not all students would have equal opportunities, especially students from poor-performing schools. Moreover, schools were often forced to ignore the comprehensive education programs and focus on elevating the performance of two subjects (Leyva, 2021). On the other hand, students from wealthy schools continued to study a wide range of subjects while students who performed poorly on the tests only received lessons on two subjects which were given more priority than others.


In conclusion, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act proved to be an effective tool in increasing teaching effectiveness. The legislation shifted the education programs from result-oriented to competence and proficiency-based through ensuring that all students are given equal opportunities to prosper. The program provided students with opportunities to establish themselves and work towards achieving the goals they wish to achieve. Despite the positive trends identified, the act had critics who believed it did not fully address education disparities and bridge the education gap. Instead, it had deviated from its goals and led to an unfair and biased approach to education. It demotivated educational stakeholders such as teachers and students through the manner in which it approaches the situation of educational inequality in the United States. To address the act’s weaknesses, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace NCLB. According to Black (2017), the new education policy allows states to adopt standards in subjects other than math and reading. The ESSA policy also allows school districts to partner with school staff and parents to design their own evidence-based strategies for academic improvement while allocating more resources from the federal government to help support underfunded schools and students from low-income communities.


Black, D. W. (2017). Abandoning the federal role in education: The every student succeeds act. California Law Review105(5), 1309-1374.

De Brey, C., Snyder, T.D., Zhang, A., and Dillow, S.A. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics 2019 (NCES 2021-009). National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC

Educational Equity Report. Civil Rights Data Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2022, from

Every Student Succeeds Act, S.1177, 114th Cong. (2015). Retrieved from

Husband, T., & Hunt, C. (2015). A review of the empirical literature on No Child Left Behind from 2001 to 2010. Planning and Changing46(1/2), 212.

Leyva, L. A. (2021). Black women’s counter-stories of resilience and within-group tensions in the white, patriarchal space of mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 52(2), 117-151.

Sharp, L. A. (2016). ESEA Reauthorization: An Overview of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 4(1), 9-13.


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